For one year and one year only, the FA have scrapped the rules by which Step 7 clubs have to abide by to gain promotion. In the past, clubs would have to finish in a promotion place within their respective regional division while also ensuring their ground meets strict ground grading regulations. In an attempt to bring more ambitious and better administered teams through the pyramid, the governing body has allowed clubs who aren’t finishing in promotion places to apply for election as long as their ground is up to scratch. For me, this is a fantastic idea.
These thoughts were also echoed by the NWCFL committee at their recent AGM in Blackpool. I attended my first meeting this time around and it was great to see such enthusiasm from all parties for the new clubs who are entering the NWCFL for the upcoming season. One of the clubs who will be making the step up is Sandbach United, a team who finished fourth in the Cheshire League.
By finishing fourth they found themselves behind Knutsford, Linotype Cheadle Heath Nomads and Whaley Bridge. All the aforementioned may arguably be better footballing sides but their current infrastructure restricts them from making the step up a division. In Sandbach United we have a club who have impressive facilities and a real drive to climb up the pyramid but while the FA regulations were in place they probably would have waited years for their promotion.
Joining Sandbach in making the step up for this season will be the likes of Prestwich Heys and Charnock Richard, another two clubs who are most definitely welcome additions to the league. Add into this Carlisle City and FC Oswestry Town and the league starts to widen it’s boundaries extensively, bringing a higher level of non-league football to wider communities and regions.
So, with Sandbach’s position in the NWCFL confirmed and all of our fixtures over for the season we thought we would delve into some Cheshire League action to see what we can expect from a club we hadn’t really heard of just months beforehand. It was a bit of a recce really, as Atherton Collieries could quite easily draw against them in the League Cup.
My groundhopping pal Matt was of course on hand to keep me company with the added bonus of us also having Atherton Collieries secretary Emil with us for the day. We were due to drag Aaron along with us but he was stuck in an important meeting at Curzon Ashton (which appeared to go on all day) and West Didsbury & Chorlton’s very own Rob McKay had apparently appointed himself reserve team manager for the afternoon ruling him out of the adventure. We were slightly sceptical to say the least when Rob used that as an excuse as he had been their manager just days beforehand and we saw him pictured on Facebook having a pint next to the touchline.
The morning of the match arrived and I met Emil at Atherton station bright and early. I had been out gallivanting the night before, watching a band called The Sex Penguins in my local pub. They were bloody awful. My excuse was that they were that bad I had to drink quite a bit to listen to them… so ultimately I was a bit worse for wear – as I so often am with these early morning escapades across the North West. We were soon in Manchester, catching the metrolink across to Piccadilly where we met with Matt in our usual rendezvous point.
By 10:04 we were all aboard the Northern Rail service down to Sandbach, stopping at a plethora of strange quiet towns we had never heard of in our lives. Even as a committed viewer of North West Tonight I had never come across these towns and it became a bit of a relief when we rolled into Holmes Chapel as at least that sounded familiar. It took around 45 minutes to reach the posh market town of Sandbach and a further half an hour to stroll into the centre as the train station is well out of way. Having said that, so is the football ground. It looked like there would be an awful lot of walking on this groundhop.
All of the houses we passed during our walk down the main road were lovely. Matt and Emil decided that the setting was like one that you would find in an ‘American family sitcom’ and they were right as the next row of suburbia we traipsed through came complete with a house which had a basketball ring attached to its exterior. The walk continued, taking us past the local high school and golf course before we eventually arrived in more familiar surroundings with a McDonald’s close to the town centre. I say familiar surroundings but I don’t really know if I can say that as the vast majority of places we’ve visited this season don’t tend to have any amenities.
Now in the town centre, I think it’s safe to say we were a bit gobsmacked at how nice the architecture was. They even had a water fountain in the middle of a roundabout which was covered in pigeon shit. Bit of a shame as we were all gasping for a drink after our long walk down from the train station… especially me as I was in a severely dehydrated state. Thankfully there were more than enough pubs in the town centre, with the majority of them found on The Cobbles, which is a large cobbled square complete with Anglo-Saxon crosses which were apparently placed there around the 8th Century.
Of course, we headed to Wetherspoons first where we supped some Punk IPA. The George Inn was a decent one and I’m not just saying that because I apparently ‘fell in love’ with another barmaid according to Matt. Arguably more of a distraction was the old bloke sat opposite us who was reading the Telegraph, dressed in a decent Ralph Lauren shirt, pink chinos and socks with sandals. Seriously, who dresses these people? It made a pleasant change from yobs in tracksuits threatening us anyway… that’s how we started our season of groundhopping back in Preston back in July.
When we set foot in Sandbach I don’t think we envisaged visiting nearly every pub that the town centre had to offer but that is exactly what we went on to do. There were that many pubs in close proximity that Matt could hardly contain his excitement, so much so that as Emil and I headed for a brief pitstop in the bookies, our Welsh comrade headed off to pick our next destination. It didn’t take us long to track Matt down once we were done placing our bets as he was sat sunbathing on The Cobbles outside Ye Olde Black Bear.
It sounded like the kind of pub you would find in neighbouring Congleton, famous for it’s history of bear fighting. So much so that the local football club are nicknamed The Bears and even have a stuffed bear in their clubhouse. Fortunately, there were no such items in this pub, just a very whacky barman from down south who came out with more innuendos than you would hear in an entire series of Bottom. The poor girl who he was training behind the bar must have been wondering what she was letting herself in for. My pint of Hereford Pale Ale was perfect and I’m sure she will go on to have an illustrious career in the pubs of Sandbach if she carries on and chooses to escape from the lunatic landlord.
Emil and I, bemused by the character we had just been introduced to, headed back outside to perch on the benches with Matt. It was a beautiful afternoon so I was slightly annoyed when I found myself sitting with my back to the sunshine. I did not travel all the way to Sandbach on a sunny day not to capitalise on it and gain myself a tanned look. Who knows, it could help me in my quest to pull a barmaid? No chance. The others who we met for the remainder of the day were nothing short of odd. If we thought the bloke in the Black Bear was off his rocker, worse was to come.
Next up was the Lower Chequer, tucked away from The Cobbles, just behind the Crosses. There were other people who were seemingly doing a pub crawl of the town a bit like us, mainly couples who obviously couldn’t be bothered heading to Manchester for the afternoon. Unfortunately, one of the couples consisted of two male dog walkers who went on to lecture us about the advantages of having a double dog lead, not for one second did we doubt their opinions on such an invention. As the bells from the nearby Church provided a constant a backdrop of music, we sat drinking pints of Shropshire Blonde and Green Monkey, trying to avoid eye contact with our dog walking friends. The beer was going down well, perhaps because it is brewed in Market Drayton, a town we had formed a bit of a connection with this season having seen them play away from home three times. We opted to stay in the Lower Chequer for a while before Prescot Cables fan David spotted us from across The Cobbles and joined us for the rest of the day; three were now four!
We decided we had time to visit another pub before heading off to the ground. There was The Saxon Grill or directly opposite stood The Market Tavern. Both were Robinsons Brewery pubs, so we didn’t think it would make much difference. There were more people outside The Saxon Grill, so we stepped foot in there but were soon stopped in our tracks by the woman behind the bar. She encouraged us to head across the road to The Market Tavern as the drinks over there would be more to our liking, plus it was apparently better in there too. Perhaps she had shares in both pubs and needed some more money going through the other?
The sound of Adam and the Ants was blaring through the speakers when we walked through the tinsel which adorned the front door of The Tavern. Nobody was behind the bar and it remained that way for a good two minutes. Was the woman from next door currently making her way through a secret underground tunnel to serve us? Perhaps the bar staff were just downstairs changing a barrel? We were close to leaving when suddenly, over the noise of Prince Charming we heard some footsteps shuffle along the wooden floorboards behind the bar. Then, this small, camp gentleman with flat bleach blonde hair emerged. Emil, louder than he probably intended, said “My God” to which the rest of us just burst out laughing.
I had a pint of Dizzy Blonde (quite fitting in hindsight) before we then managed to track down a phone number for a local taxi company. It later transpired that The Market Tavern is run by a gay couple who are well known in the local area. We probably should have guessed when we had to shimmy through the tinsel as we entered.
With around half an hour to go until kick off our taxi picked us up from The Cobbles. Matt and I have had some strange journeys with taxi drivers over the past season, from the time we travelled at 80mph through the outskirts of Doncaster to reach Brodsworth Miners Welfare in time for kick off, to the occasion in Newcastle-under-Lyme where we were certain we were going to be abducted because Matt had dared to mention that he lived in Salford. Apparently this bloke’s brother was once stabbed in Salford. His leather driving gloves didn’t put my mind at ease. Fortunately, our driver for this leg of our groundhopping adventures knew exactly where he was going and could even hold a conversation about non-league football which was a first.
The Sandbach Community Football Centre was found in the middle of nowhere, very reminiscent to AFC Fylde’s old ground at Kellamergh Park. Nonetheless, the place was heaving when we arrived. The car park was full and there was a bit of a queue at the wooden shed which was acting as a turnstile. Even Mr. Tony Incenzo was there. We had forgotten who the visitors for today’s match were but the misspelt handwritten sign at the entrance helped us add some context to our visit. It was no wonder the sign was spelt incorrectly when we realised that Greenalls Padgate St. Oswalds were in town. It was a name we soon forgot and jumbled up once the match had kicked off as literally nobody in the ground could remember their full title. GPSO are a side from Warrington who play at the Tetley Walker Club, a ground they shared with former NWCFL side Tetley Walker FC until they stopped playing back in 2001.
Programmes were also on sale at the wooden shed at £2 each; a bit of a rip off considering it was just eight pages and had barely anything about the match in it. It did however have a feature in it with Sandbach midfielder Tommy Watkin who we thought put in a fantastic performance during the match; so much so that I even labelled him a ‘hero’ before he had to be substituted because he became absolutely knackered midway through the second half. His hero stakes went up further when I read that he had played for Sandbach since 1995. The one thing that did let him down was the fact he has a large Stoke City tattoo on his back.
Past the entrance is a modern clubhouse and changing facility which will be amongst the best in the NWCFL when Sandbach make the step up. The social area includes a kitchen and bar area which thankfully did Guinness on draft meaning I was sorted for the afternoon. A great feature of this clubhouse is the fact the doors which lead into the ground can be fully opened, allowing the media facilities and speaker system to overlook the pitch while all being fully enclosed. Again, these will be fantastic facilities for a NWCFL club. It certainly puts our metal cabin with a rotting floor to shame at Atherton Collieries.
The rest of the ground consists of two wooden sheds which stand behind the goal on the right; they must have had a special offer on sheds at B&Q. As Emil says, you can tell you’re in a nice part of the country when you can have wooden infrastructure and leave netting up overnight without fear of it all being burnt down by the local youths. Floodlights are not currently in place but all of the wiring is ready, so hopefully they will be up by the end of September when the light starts fading and more midweek matches start being piled upon clubs. In the corner of the ground there’s a large pile of red plastic seats which have been taken from Stoke City’s ground, I am informed that these will be used to create a seated stand which will be needed within the next year to meet ground grading standards.
As for the pitch, it was in fantastic condition and was accompanied by a further five full sized pitches, three youth pitches and an artificial facility. As far as sports complexes go, this is probably the best I had visited.
The Sandbach Community Football Centre opened in 2012 at a cost of £2.2 million. Not bad for a club that was only formed in 2004 following the amalgamation of Sandbach Albion and the fantastically named Sandbach Ramblers. Personally, I would have loved it if they were still named the Ramblers. It would have made up slightly for the loss of romantic names such as Castleton Gabriels, Blackpool Mechanics and Fleetwood Freeport in recent years. Added to this, the two fans who opted to sing and bang their small Crewe Alexandra drum during the match could have belted out songs such as, “I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Sandbach way!”
Coming into the match, Sandbach knew they were promoted regardless of where they finished. Fourth place was already guaranteed but they could seal third place if they beat GPSO who themselves were chasing a fifth placed finish. The home side were in a claret and blue kit, exactly the same one that South Shields had been wearing on the couple of times I had seen them in the past few months. GPSO were in dark green, looking a bit like 1874 Northwich.
Emil and I headed around to the far goal as former Colls goalkeeper Lee Novak was in net for the visitors. We had a good laugh with our Bolton Hospital Cup Final hero of 2012 (he saved a penalty in the shootout against Eagley) without putting him off too much, we hope. Matt was arguably chatting to a more famous footballer as he stayed with Liverpool legend Ronnie Moran and his son Paul.
It was Sandbach who opened the scoring after around ten minutes when a striker hit a fierce strike into the top right hand corner past the helpless Novak. There were not a lot of clear cut chances in the first half but the quality of football on show was decent and more than enjoyable to watch as a neutral. The score was level at the half time interval as Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds (GIVE US A G!) found the back of the net with a tidy finish from the edge of the area.
There was enough time for another pint at half time before we headed over to the other side of the ground for the remainder of the match. We passed an awful lot of groundhoppers who were all stood around with their booklets, writing down tally’s from how many corners there were to how many blades of grass there were behind the near goal. I’m by no way suggesting there were some oddballs on show for Sandbach’s last game in the Cheshire League.
The away side were the better team in the second half and deservedly took the lead when a fantastic through ball was latched on to by the Greenalls striker who rounded the keeper and finished. Sandbach were rallied by Tommy Watkin and an irate left winger who shouted at his fellow players in some Eastern European dialect, much to the amusement of his teammates and the people in attendance.
There were a few further half chances for both sides but none of them found the back of the net meaning Sandbach United closed their time in the Cheshire League with a defeat, not that they minded that much. The result meant that United finished the season in fourth, while Greenalls were close behind them in fifth.
We had to stay behind in Sandbach for a bit while we waited for the next train back to Manchester, so we decided to head back into the bar for a further pint. It was fairly quiet as most in attendance headed straight off, something which proves there were a lot of groundhoppers from further afield. We were joined by players from both sides who rightfully enjoyed an end of season pint.
It was soon time to pile into our taxi back to the train station. Of course, it was the same driver who brought us to the ground. He hadn’t waited in the car park for us and none of us had the cheek to ask him if he was the sole taxi driver in Sandbach. My guess is he had a good laugh with us on the way down so was keen to meet us again… or he wanted to ensure we left his town as quickly as possible.
Back in Manchester, we ended up having a pint in the Piccadilly Tap before we all headed our separate ways. Emil and I caught the guided busway back to Atherton and before long I inevitably found myself sat in my local, The Rope & Anchor watching the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Ironically, I bumped into my second former Colls goalkeeper of the day in Josh Harris, who regularly used to battle with Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds stopper Lee Novak for the number 1 shirt. Unfortunately Josh was hobbling around on crutches following what I would describe as an ‘innocuous’ challenge on him in the NWCFL Play Off final the other week while playing for Bacup.
Overall, it was a fantastic day in Sandbach. The town and club will be fantastic additions to the NWCFL. I can see a few teams and supporters moaning at having to travel there on a cold Tuesday night in January, but those who get to visit there on a warm Saturday will be in for a real treat. This a fantastic community club who I am sure will be able to push on once they have consolidated themselves in Division One. Personally, I hope we draw them in the League Cup so I have another excuse to visit there again so quickly.
*All photos from this trip are courtesy of David and Matt, thanks!
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 53 miles
- ADMISSION: £2
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2